Roger Pielke Jr.: climate science is misusing the future

Summary: The public policy choices we make about climate policy depend on the future that we expect. Here Roger Pielke Jr. describes an example of how climate scenarios combine needless pessimism with bizarre optimism. Both make planning more difficult and less effective.


Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images.


“Misusing the Future”

A presentation by Roger Pielke Jr. at a symposium on
ALternative Pathways toward Sustainable development and climate stabilization (ALPS).

Sponsored by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), 9 February 2018.
Posted with his generous permission. PDF copy here.


“The talk focuses on a number of “fudge factors” in IAMs, specifically assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization, misuse of RCP 8.5 in climate impact studies and the dependence on Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) in scenarios. Three other assumptions I could have included are temperature overshoot assumptions, estimates of climate sensitivity and misleading definitions of what constitutes ‘energy access.'”

Excerpt from notes by Pielke at his website

We identified the importance of assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization in IPCC scenarios more than a decade ago (Pielke, Wigley and Green 2008). Even though a solid piece of research, our 2008 paper and me specifically were the subject of a furious and sustained attack by the Center for American Progress, such as Joe Romm’s “Why did Nature run Pielke’s pointless, misleading, nonsense?” (the first of dozens of such pieces). With hindsight it seems clear that our paper in 2008 was the trigger for a long effort to drive me out of the climate debate (funded by Tom Steyer with lots of behind-the-scenes help from activist climate scientists).

Looking back at our research, and updating it in my Tokyo talk, I observe that heroic assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization not only survived our critique, but have since thrived. They showed up in the following set of IPCC scenarios (the RCPs) and now in the most recent set of scenarios {Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, aka SSPs}. Such assumptions are like a narcotic in the climate debate. They give the impression that the climate policies at the center of international climate diplomacy might actually work, even as evidence of their failure should seem obvious.

In the talk I reference a paper by MIT’s Kerry Emanuel as an example of the misuse of RCP 8.5: “Assessing the present and future probability of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall.” I cannot overstate how egregiously bad this is. Emanuel’s paper is so bad not simply because it uses RCP 8.5. Rather it is so bad because its estimate of the impacts of climate change on Hurricane Harvey in 2017 are entirely a function of projected impacts in 2100., which he then divided by 6. Had Emanuel used any of the other scenarios out to 2100, then estimated 2017 impacts would have been much less. That’s right, the arbitrary choice of a 2100 emissions scenario determines the impacts of climate change from 1980 to 2017.

As explained in detail in my 2 books on climate (which in turn draw upon the IPCC and many, many peer reviewed papers), there is excellent and robust science on human influences on climate. Make no mistake, this science is robust and performed with integrity. However, the continued misuse of RCP 8.5 to generate scientifically unsupportable estimates of climate impacts places climate advocates in a position of promoting dodgy science to support political advocacy originally grounded in solid science. Seriously, Why do this? Scientifically empty studies based on RCP 8.5 legitimately give climate science a bad name. …The emperor’s clothes, though, they are lovely.

Bottom Line: The Emperor’s Clothes.

The three assumptions that I highlight in my talk support three political stances reinforcing the status quo. First, the costs of status quo climate policies are low. Second, the costs of inaction are already extremely high. Third, climate diplomacy is on track because a future, unproven, massive technology will save us. Without these assumptions, each of these political stances is questionable — or at least, should be opened to questioning. While important assumptions go unchallenged and challenging questions go unasked, the IPCC is about to release a report on 1.5 degrees (fantasy land).

————–— End of Pielke’s notes. —————-

About RCP8.5 — a worst-case scenario

As Pielke says, for four years RCP8.5 — the worst-case scenario from the IPCC’s AR5 — has been used to terrify people into support climate activists’ policies. Their key means for doing so was misrepresenting it as the “business as usual scenario” (details here). As I and so many others have shown, it is a useful worst-case scenario — assuming adverse changes in many important and long-standing trends. For example, that fertility stops declining and technological progress slows or stops (details here).

The most important factor in RCP8.5 is the increasing reliance on coal, so that the late 21st century — like the late 19th C — is run by coal. Of course, we see today the opposite happening. The US is shifting away from coal (here and here), as is most of the world (e.g., Britain). Slowly researchers are re-examining the plausibility of a coal-burning future, as in two papers by Justin Ritchie and Hadi Dowlatabadi (in Energy Economics and Environmental Research Letters.

Even steadfast  climate alarmist media like Salon and Bloomberg (reluctantly) admit that their fear campaign now appears unjustified. That does mean that the future will be pleasant. Continued growth in population and greenhouse grass emissions almost guarantee some hard times for the world in the mid-21st century. But not certain doom.

What might save us?

Pielke clearly sketches out the problem. What might save us? The obvious answer is new technology. Unfortunately, governments are investing relatively little in potential breakthrough technologies. But several private companies have promising fusion R&D programs. For example, Lockheed’s compact fusion reactor and TAE Technologies (formerly Tri Alpha Energy). There are roughly 200 fusion R&D projects around the world. We only need one to work. Of course, we cannot count on fusion — or any new tech — to save us.

It will take ten to twenty years to take fusion from success in the lab (when or if) to beginning of widespread commercialization. Adoption rates for new technologies in consumer goods are 2x or 3x those typical in the early 20th century. And if it is necessary to save the world, power generation systems can be mostly converted in a decade or two. See an interactive version of this graph at Our World in Data.

Technology Penetration Curve

Roger Pielke Jr
Roger Pielke Jr.

About the author

Roger Pielke, Jr. is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the U of CO-Boulder. He was Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He is now Director of the Sports Governance Center in the Dept of Athletics. Before joining the faculty of the U of CO, from 1993-2001 he was a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

His research focuses on science, innovation and politics. He holds degrees in mathematics, public policy and political science from the University of Colorado. In 2006 he received the Eduard Brückner Prize in Munich for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research. In 2012 Roger was awarded an honorary doctorate from Linköping University in Sweden and the Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America.

His page at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has his bio, CV, and links to some of his publications. His website has links to his works, and essays about the many subjects on which he works.

He is also author, co-author or co-editor of seven books, including The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (2007), The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (2010), The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (2014), and The Edge: The War against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports (2016).

Some of his recent publications and presentations.

  1. Catastrophes of the 21st Century” at Aon Benfield Australia.
  2. Tracking Climate Progress: A Guide for Policymakers and the Informed Public” in the IEEJ Energy Journal.
  3. My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic” in the Wall Street Journal.
  4. The Truthiness about Hurricane Catastrophe Models” with J. Weinkle in Science, Technology & Human Values.
  5. An example of climate activists at work that shows why they lost. His presentation at the U of FL, March 2017.
  6. Manichean paranoia has poisoned the climate debate.
  7. Institutional decay in climate science.
  8. More misreporting of experts’ reports.
  9. The Politics of Inconceivable Scenarios.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about Roger Pielke Jr., about coal, about the RCPs, and My posts about climate change, and especially these …

  1. Updating the RCPs: The IPCC gives us good news about climate change, but we don’t listen.
  2. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  3. My proposal: Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  4. 2017 was warm. The next few years will be more important.

See these books to learn more about the state of climate change.

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Professor Roger Pielke Jr. See my review of it.

Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change by Dr. Susan Crockford. See my review of it.

 The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.
Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Roger Pielke Jr.: climate science is misusing the future”

  1. “As Pielke says, for four years RCP8.5 — the worst-case scenario from the IPCC’s AR5 — has been used to terrify people into support climate activists’ policies.”

    This is what it’s truly about. First it was nuclear winter, then it was global warming, now it’s climate “change”. Well, of course the climate is changing. It’s called “seasons”.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Well, of course the climate is changing. It’s called “seasons”.”

      No, it is called climate change. It has been one of the major forces driving the rise and fall of peoples throughout history. The Little Ice Age reached its peak intensity in Europe at roughly 1700. Scotland could not reliably grow grain, and after centuries of conflict were unified in 1707.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      The IPCC reports have always been “open” to comments. But in the past even experts’ comments were often disregarded. That is natural for a body of scientists. The current paradigm will guide their work. The paradigm’s challengers will be pretty much ignored. It is a feature of the system, not a bug. Thomas Kuhn explained this long ago in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

      That is why scientists’ conclusions are inputs to the public policy process – but not definitive.

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